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Smyth, Sir Nevill Maskelyne (1868–1941)

by Ivan Chapman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Sir Nevill Maskelyne Smyth (1868-1941), soldier, was born on 14 August 1868 in London, son of (Sir) Warington Wilkinson Smyth, mineralogist, and his wife Anna Maria Antonia, née Story-Maskelyne. Educated at Westminster School, he graduated from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1888 and was posted to the Queen's Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) in India as a second lieutenant. In 1890 he was attached to the Royal Engineers to assist with a railway survey during the Zhob Valley expedition. By 1896 the Bays were stationed in Cairo at the time General Kitchener was about to launch an offensive against the Khalifa in the Sudan.

With Britain bent on avenging General Gordon's death at Khartoum, Smyth helped to chart some of the Nile cataracts in readiness for the push against Omdurman. In an early battle Lieutenant Smyth had charge of the machine-guns aboard a Royal Navy riverboat which bombarded Metemmeh. On 2 September 1898 Kitchener's Anglo-Egyptian forces assaulted Omdurman. Smyth's role was that of intelligence officer and orderly to Major General Sir Archibald Hunter, commander of the Egyptian division. With the battle ending, a dervish tried to spear two war correspondents; Smyth galloped forward and, though severely speared, shot the man dead. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action.

In August 1899 a Mahdist rising on the Blue Nile was suppressed by Captain Smyth who commanded a small force which captured the Khalifa Muhammad al-Sharif and two of the Mahdi's sons. The three were executed following a summary court martial presided over by Smyth who was then acting governor and military commander of the Blue Nile district.

Although Kitchener wanted Smyth to go to the South African War in 1900, he was kept busy charting the Nile cataracts from Wadi Halfa to Abyssinia. After completing a survey up to 200 miles (322 km) west of Khartoum, in 1902 he rejoined the Bays for active service in South Africa. That April the regiment inflicted heavy losses on General Alberts's commandos. Smyth was cut off with five soldiers, all of whom were wounded. He rejected the Boers' call to surrender and escaped on a horse belonging to General Alberts. Promoted major in 1903, Smyth was transferred to the Carabiniers (6th Dragoon Guards) who were then stationed in India but moved to South Africa in 1908. He was commanding officer and lieutenant-colonel when he took the regiment to England in 1912. Next year he won his aviator's certificate. Although he could have joined the Royal Flying Corps, he went instead to the Egyptian Army. A colonel from December 1912, he was commandant of the Khartoum district in 1913-14 and active in combating the slave-trade.

In World War I Colonel Smyth was among several senior officers sent by Lord Kitchener to the Dardanelles. He arrived at Gallipoli in May 1915 and supervised the truce of the 24th to allow the Turks to bury their dead. Commanding the 1st Australian Infantry Brigade at the battle of Lone Pine in August, Smyth won the trust and admiration of the diggers. Charles Bean wrote of Smyth 'directing reinforcements into Lone Pine tunnels as quietly as a ticket collector passing passengers on to a platform'. At the evacuation, Smyth was one of the last officers to leave the peninsula.

Smyth led his brigade in France through the severe fighting for Pozières and Mouquet Farm on the Somme in 1916, and at the end of that year he was given command of the 2nd Australian Division as major general. The pursuit of the Germans to the Hindenburg line and the capture of Bapaume in the spring of 1917 were followed by the battles of Bullecourt and 3rd Ypres. Because of his Sudan experience, Smyth was particularly adept in planning highly successful 'peaceful penetration' raids on the German trenches. When he was transferred back to the British Army in May 1918, Smyth told Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash: 'The fortune of war has indeed treated me kindly in enabling me to have the honour of being associated with your historic force'.

In the closing months of the war Smyth briefly commanded the 58th British Division and then the 59th which he handled with characteristic skill at the liberation of Lille. Although the procedure was irregular, he occasionally borrowed an aeroplane to do his own 'spotting' of enemy trenches. After the Armistice he controlled most of the Channel ports and in 1919 was appointed general officer commanding the 47th division of the Territorial Army. He was appointed C.B. in 1916, knighted (K.C.B.) in 1919, and awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre and the French Légion d'honneur. In his long career he was mentioned in dispatches eleven times. Smyth retired from the British Army in 1924.

While Bean thought that Smyth was sometimes too cautious ('He almost always went to see for himself'), Major General Sir Brudenell White held him in high regard: 'He is so sphinx-like, silent and imperturbable. But there is a quality that stands out in Smyth—his intense thoroughness. That was his great characteristic'. Major General Sir Charles Rosenthal, who succeeded Smyth as G.O.C., 2nd Division, wrote: 'Among the soldiers he was recognized as an officer of wise moderation and calm courage, a strict disciplinarian'. One of his senior officers said that the troops remembered Smyth 'for his ability, fair-mindedness and sterling military qualities'.

On 23 July 1918 at Holy Trinity parish church, Chelsea, London, Smyth had married Evelyn Olwen, daughter of Colonel Sir Osmond Williams, baronet and lord lieutenant of Merionethshire, Wales. Their three children were born in Britain and the family migrated to Australia in 1925, settling on a grazing property at Balmoral, Victoria. Smyth said that he regarded Australians as the finest troops with whom he had ever served, and he wanted to live among them in their country. He took a keen interest in district affairs and in 1931 was an unsuccessful Nationalist Party candidate for the Victorian Senate vacancy caused by the death of Major General Harold 'Pompey' Elliott.

Survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter, Smyth died at his Balmoral home on 21 July 1941 and was buried in the local cemetery. His portrait by George Coates is in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. A son, Dacre Smyth, served in the Royal Australian Navy in 1940-78 and rose to commodore.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vol 2 (Syd, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • L. B. Oatts, I Serve (Lond, 1966)
  • Westminster School, Elizabethan, 1882-85
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Aug 1932, 1 May 1934
  • Daily Graphic (London), 5 Sept 1898
  • Daily Mail (London), 31 Aug 1899
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 May 1931
  • war diaries, 1st Australian Infantry Brigade, 1915-16 and 2nd Australian Division, 1917-18 (Australian War Memorial)
  • war diaries, 59th Division, British Army, 1918 (War Office, London)
  • C. E. W. Bean papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • Smyth personal diaries, 1896-1902, 1915-18 (privately held)
  • Wingate papers (School of Oriental Studies, University of Durham, England)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ivan Chapman, 'Smyth, Sir Nevill Maskelyne (1868–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smyth-sir-nevill-maskelyne-8567/text14953, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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